A Simple Way to Check the Integrity of the Gospels
Integrity of the Gospels, for many, is the first step in accepting their believability. Checking the integrity of the Gospels and their story about Jesus can be as simple as comparing one Gospel account to another, a process known as “literary analysis.”
The term sounds intimidating, complicated and boring – not! Almost anyone can do it at a basic level…and it can be very interesting. Chances are, literary analysis in its simplest form is part of a routine personal activity. It happens naturally when reading a text and mentally breaking it down to understand it better such as with books, magazine articles, Internet blogs, instructions, maps, etc.
In the case of the Gospels, literary analysis can be as simple as comparing two or more Gospels for such things as word usage, consistency, theme, and meaning or factual accuracy. Performing any type of comparisons or cross references…that’s basic literary analysis. It does not require the considerable time and effort invested by many experts using scientific methods to evaluate the integrity soundness of the Gospels.
One step is defining the genre of the Gospels, fiction vs. non-fiction. Is their content about real people, places and events (non-fiction) or are the Gospels an invented story (fiction) written for some other entertainment purpose, in this case, requiring collusion between four authors? To help figure it out, a reader can rely on certain commonly recognized literary characteristic guidelines.
In fictions, the characters are not real although they could believably be real people with resemblances to real persons. A fiction can include real places, periods and events as a setting, but the story is always imaginary, artificial, not real. A big clue is the purpose of the author – was the intent to be entertaining, amusing, or enjoyable reading?
Non-fictions, on the other hand, are written with the intent to be informative about real people, places or events based on historical, geographical or biographical facts. Aside from research or reference documents, other non-fictions can reflect the author’s recollection of events or facts quite possibly influenced by their personal experiences. Quotes of real people are inherent non-fiction characteristics where their words can be very revealing in multiple ways.
Another part of literary analysis involves studying the characters in the story. Who are they – their gender, background, age, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, etc.? What did these characters say or how did they behave in various situations such as adversity, conflict, competition, challenges, interaction with others, etc.? Does it ring true – are their behaviors under the various circumstances what is to be expected by a normal person?
Understanding the theme is a key component – what is the central idea of the writing? For the Gospels, is the theme about the chronicles of the birth, life, trial and execution of Jesus in the Judean Roman province – historical? Is the theme to teach Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness – philosophical? Or is the central theme to convey the message of salvation through the resurrection of Jesus – religious?
A very close cousin to literary analysis is known as “textual criticism,” another term that seems intimidating and boring to be reserved only for experts so inclined for such torture – not necessarily true. This is where natural investigative curiosity kicks in…that urge to verify historical, geographical and biographical information to see if it is accurate. For the Gospels, this is multiplied by a factor of 4 setting the highest bar of direct answerability for all the works of antiquity.
Fact checking is very simple today using topical searches on the Internet to find reliable secondary sources such as encyclopedias, historical websites, university library websites – even the original texts of antiquity such as Josephus, Augustus, Suetonius and Tacitus. The more knowledgeable about the subject matter, the better the analysis.
Performing literary analysis and literary criticism of the Gospels are a form of the scientific methodology. First, reading what has been written (observation); then gathering information (evidence, research, intuitive analysis) to identify the premise, the theme (hypothesis); and finally validation to see if it stands up to scrutiny (testing, retesting).
Using a scientific methodology approach allows for repeating the process to gain confidence in the outcome or conclusion. For some, a conclusion one way or the other about the integrity of the Gospels may come quickly; for others it may take longer.
Do the Gospels meet the standard of integrity? In the end, the conclusion will be one reached on a personal level perhaps influenced by opinions, even biases weighed against observations, evaluation and factual accuracy.
Ultimately, if the Gospels are found to be credible non-fictions, then the bigger question becomes – is their central message theme believable?
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